Levy Lecture: Honoring Evanston Black history sites with Dino Robinson

Morris “Dino” Robinson Jr. has always been interested in history. Although his professional background

is in graphic design, skills he uses at his full-time job at Northwestern University Press, Shorefront Legacy Center is his labor of love. Robinson founded Shorefront in 1995. Its mission is to collect, preserve and educate about Black history on Chicago’s North Shore, focusing primarily on Evanston, Glencoe and Lake Forest, places with a long history of an African American community.


Robinson’s expertise about and interest in Black history goes back decades. On Tuesday, November 9, he presented an online talk and slideshow to the Levy Lecture Series audience that summarized the early efforts to recognize and preserve historically important Black sites within Evanston. The latter part of the presentation was a visual tour of the first eight African American heritage sites selected for historic recognition as a result of Evanston City Council Resolution 54-R-20, African American Heritage Sites, adopted June 22, 2020.


The origin of the historical recognition project began in June 1995 when then-Alderman Joseph Kent tried to generate interest in creating a heritage conservation district within Evanston’s Fifth Ward. He formed a committee titled Preserving Integrity Through Culture and History, but everyone referred to it as PITCH. The following year, through the National Historic Preservation Conference in Chicago, PITCH offered a tour of homes and sites throughout the Fifth Ward. About 80 people attended; Robinson was one of the guides on one of the two buses.


One of the hurdles PITCH faced was the need to expand the definition of what was considered a heritage site. Typically, a heritage site achieved that designation based on the architectural significance of a building, because of its style or the fame of the architect. That did not apply to buildings in the Fifth Ward. But over many months, community members collected significant stories, photos and documentation to identify sites within Evanston that had cultural, historic or architectural significance, and presented those recommendations to the Evanston Historic Preservation Commission. The summary report and recommendations was presented to the City Council. All of the research was donated to the newly established Shorefront Legacy Center.


The conservation district idea stalled, but Shorefront continued to thrive, expand and become better known. Flash forward 20 years when Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons contacted Robinson about establishing a preservation district within the Fifth Ward, and then later, how to save a historically significant structure, the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building.


Family Focus could no longer afford to maintain the building and wanted to sell it. Before the structure housed Family Focus, the building housed Foster School, a beloved institution that educated thousands of local children. The community was concerned the building might be torn down.


In March 2018, Robinson prepared a presentation for the Evanston Historic Preservation Committee that documented why the building deserved to be designated with landmark status. The Family Focus building, Robinson said, qualified as a landmark in three primary areas:

  • “Identification with a person or persons significantly contributed to the historic, cultural, architectural, archaeological or related aspect of the development of the City of Evanston.”

  • Connection to important social or cultural events within Evanston.

  • Connection to neighborhood development or settlement “significant to the cultural history or traditions of the City of Evanston, whose components may lack individual distinction.”

Robinson’s presentation was successful and the application for landmark status for the Family Focus building was approved. His application included a timeline of the building’s history, photographs going back decades, copies of receipts, articles, lists of well-known people who taught at or attended Foster School, recollections, memorabilia and more. The final presentation exceeded 120 pages of documentation.


The effort cultivated community support and participation. There is an Advisory Committee whose members change annually. Over time those involved realized they did not want to restrict landmark status designations to just the Fifth Ward; sites were prevalent throughout Evanston. They developed a marker, signage and a website to identify landmarks. They sought community input for the sites that deserved to be designated and encouraged people to submit applications in support of their choices.


Eight sites to be recognized initially


The first eight sites have been selected and identified. The markers are being produced and should be delivered within the coming weeks, with official installation in sidewalks to be scheduled for spring 2022.


The first group of sites honor buildings and locations related to historically significant Evanstonians including Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., Evanston’s first African American alderman; former Mayor Lorraine Hairston Morton, the first African American to be elected to that office; and the husband-and-wife team of Dr. Isabella Garnett and Dr. Arthur Butler, who founded a hospital – the Evanston Sanitarium – in 1914 to serve the African American community.


From the business community, there is Henry Butler, owner of Butler Livery Stable; entrepreneurs (and parents of Henry) Cornelius and Barbara Butler; and publisher William Twiggs. Ebenezer A.M.E. Church stands on its own. Poignantly, the home of Maria and George Robinson, founding members of Second Baptist Church, was selected. Maria was the first African American, then enslaved, brought into Evanston as a domestic in 1855. She was 14 years old.